I have a confession to make: I didn’t get it all done.
This sabbatical I’m about to embark on has been in the planning for about a couple of years, and since last Fall I’ve been earnestly making lists of things that needed to be accomplished before I left, both personal and professional. Updates that I wanted to conclude, tasks to work through, projects to complete. I had fitness goals to achieve, cluttered spaces to be organized, and home improvement undertakings to finish. Of course there were the regular aspects of my job, the joy of meeting some of you to grab a cup of coffee over at Red Barn. The pastoral concerns that have emerged in the past couple of months, communicating the exciting things happening here at St. Mark’s, searching for a youth director. Add to that the personal things: sports and music activities for the kids, supporting Melissa in her doctoral program, dinners to cook.
The picture I had in my mind grew to fantastical levels: I would be the male equivalent of the Proverbs 31 woman. Going to bed late at night, and rising before the sun, I would do more things than humanly possible all before I set out on this adventure of a lifetime. (And a friendly reminder, that the woman described in Proverbs 31 is actually Wisdom personified, but I digress.) The image I held up for myself was utter perfection.
One of my favorite Disney characters is Edna Mode, the designer of superhero suits from “The Incredibles,” who also answers simply to “E.” The not so average Bob and Helen Parr—better known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl—have been underground in their forced retirement from super hero work, and both have reason to visit her. Bob to repair his old suit which has gotten a tear—and that E will only fix if she can design him a new suit.
While cleaning one day when Bob is out of town, Helen notices the stitched up sleeve on that old suit and wonders what Bob is up to. While at E’s mansion, it dawns on Helen that she doesn’t know where Bob currently is in addition to the midlife crisis he’s been having. Ultimately, Helen breaks down, sobbing. We see Edna holding a roll of toilet paper for Helen to use as Kleenex, as she recounts the recent past. Edna puts down the roll, and grabs a newspaper to push the used tissues into the trash.
Anyone here ever read Charlotte’s Web? While many of you may remember the overall plot of EB White’s classic book, I suspect the beginning has gotten a bit fuzzy for most of you. Fern—the delightful girl who befriends the farm animals—sleepily asks where her Pa is going with the ax one morning when she come down for breakfast. Her mother explains that some pigs were born overnight and that one of pigs is a runt. “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything,” her mother says. “So your father has decided to do away with it.” Fern will have nothing to do with this and wakes up quickly. She runs down to the barn lickity split and stops her dad from killing that poor pig. Later that day while she’s at school she decides to name him Wilbur, and she takes wonderful care of him. It’s only later, after that pig has grown quite a bit, that Wilbur makes his way to Zuckerman’s farm up the road.
Wilbur soon discovers that farms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. He can’t find a friend to play with among the other animals and loneliness sets in. He cries himself to sleep one night when a voice tells him that in the morning she will be his friend. At the sliver of dawn, he asks all of the other animals if they were the one who had spoken to him the night before, but they all tell him to go away. Finally the same voice calls out to Wilbur, “Salutations!” White describes what happened next in this way, “Wilbur jumped to his feet. ‘Salu-what?’ he cried. ‘Salutations’ repeated the voice. ‘What are they, and where are you?’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Please, please, tell we where you are. And what are salutations?’ ‘Salutations are greetings,’ said the voice. ‘When I say “salutations,” it’s just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning.’” It’s how Charlotte meets Wilbur.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
The last words Jesus utters from the cross, that means of execution by the Romans, are simply: “It is finished.” It is complete. Accomplished. The work he came to do both in and for this world as the Son of the Living God has been done. And, implicit in the Greek, there is also the sense of a new beginning, a start of something that has been waiting to spring up around us, much like the sight of those first sprouts of a germinating seed.
Truly this man was God’s Son.” The centurion and those with him make this realization once their deed is done—after Jesus takes his last breath, and the earth trembles and graves open and risen saints emerge. “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
The only words Jesus himself speaks from the time of his trial before Pilate to his last breath is that plaintive cry: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani.” “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” These final statements from Matthew’s crucifixion scene stand in stark juxtaposition to one another. “Truly this was God’s Son” “Why have you forsaken me?”
The Israelites get a bad rap. They’ve been making their way through the desert, enduring hot days and miles of walking, and when they get to their campsite they can’t find fresh water anywhere. Yes, they grumble. But they’ve just spent the last 400 years of their history as slaves, and they thought that somehow things would be different, that they would no longer be pushed to their physical limits. They want to be in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Instead they’re at Rephidim, and there’s not a drop of water to be found. And they’re thirsty.
So they complain to Moses, who in turn complains to God about the complaining Israelites without seeing the irony or the humor in it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cries out to God. “They are almost ready to stone me.” God instructs Moses what he is to do. He’s to gather the elders in the midst of the people, and take the staff with which he struck the Nile, and go. When he gets to the rock at Horeb, he’s to strike it with the same staff and water will come forth. Moses does as the Lord commanded him and water flowed out for the people. And they changed the name of the place to Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled (Massah) and tested (Meribah) the Lord. They wanted to know if God was indeed among them or not.
But which of us wouldn’t be panicky if we showed up at the intended destination and there was no water to be found? Some of the campsites at State Parks in Massachusetts don’t have potable water, and they make sure you know that before you reserve a spot for a night or two. “Fresh water is not available for showers or drinking. Remember, campers should bring at least 1 gallon drinking water per person, per day.” Which isn’t too big of a deal you might think, except that these instructions are for campsites on the islands in Boston Harbor and you can’t just pop over to a local Kwik-E-Mart and grab some bottled water after the ferry has left you behind. You’re then in the same predicament as those Israelites, and I suspect that grumbling wouldn’t be far behind, especially if your buddy did the trip planning and forgot to tell you about the water.
Since September I’ve been preaching a series on the marks of a 21st century disciple. At times I’ve included the line explicitly, “This and such is a mark of a 21st century disciple.” At times I’ve been slightly less direct, moving around something that defines the life of a disciple, looking at it from different angles, without spelling it out quite so specifically. (Part of that is due to my background as a writer and not wanting to repeat the same sentence or its variant every single Sunday. That would get old.)
On this Sunday our Biblical texts serve up faith, and even those who are not followers of Jesus could probably tell you that it is one of the key characteristics of a disciple. Faith. Or perhaps belief, but not the belief in something as true — “I believe that this church building is made of stone” or “I believe in the law of gravity” — but rather the belief that something will happen in the future, something that has not happened yet— like “I believe the Sox will win the Series this year”—and never losing hope, even when it looks like it won’t take place. In the Greek it’s pistis, and besides faith and believe it also gets translated as assurance, fidelity and trust. Something that is sure and true. Something promised.
Any preacher who begins talking about faith sooner or later pulls out the epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. The writer of that letter—whoever she is—gives a fantastic litany of the faith of our forebears, and begins with this definition. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or as Eugene Patterson pens it in the Message Bible, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.” All of this is a backdrop for this morning.
The prophet Joel implores us today with these words from the Lord. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
This holy and sacred season of Lent is an invitation from the Church for all of us to return to the Lord. To seek out spiritual practices; engage in personal reflection; share our resources with others; read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of Scripture; seek forgiveness through repentance; and make our way back home to God.
Because it’s easy to get distracted and get off track. It’s easy to get sucked in by what Frederick Buechner terms “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us.” It drowns out that still small voice of God that Elijah heard in the utter silence. It distracts us, turning our attention away from God and the things that draw us closer to God. And so we need to make time in our lives to intentionally return, to re-center, refocus, and re-establish our connection with God. To realistically face ourselves and where we have been and where we are. To see those patterns that pull us away from God, and make amends.
It pays to pay attention to words.
Good writers make sure that the words they use illuminate the story or the idea they intend to communicate. Placement matters. Words and phrases are carefully chosen and given their order for a reason.
Saint Matthew is a good writer. We can visualize the scene he’s describing for us; Jesus, Peter, James and John head up a mountain by themselves, slowly hiking up the trail. Once they reach the top, Jesus changes before them. His clothes become dazzling white. His face shines brightly. And then two others instantly appear and begin speaking with him. Matthew tells us it’s Moses and Elijah—they represent the Law and the Prophets, the foundation of Holy Scripture.
A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 17:1-9.
Peter gets all gushy and proclaims that it would be spectacular if he and the Zebedee boys could build a few shelters for Jesus and his friends. And while he’s still exuberantly speaking, the fog rolls in. However, rather than dimming things down, it shines brightly too. Suddenly a voice from the cloud declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
During my senior year of college I ran across a passage from Mark Twain from his autobiography about how he always preached in his humor, and that because of this humor would live forever, that is to say, about thirty years. He was comparing himself to other humorists who had gone before whom the world had forgotten because they didn’t do this. And then he concluded: “I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am dead person speaking from the grave. Even I would be too modest to say them in life. I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead— and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.” It was that last paragraph that stunned me. About people ought-ing to start dead. About how we aren’t our entire and honest selves in this life, in the present time.
And so on this Sunday I stand before you not as the me in the here and now, but the me in the future. Nine years from now, to be exact, on February 8, 2026. When these same lessons will be read once more in these walls, and I will climb the steps to this pulpit to proclaim the good news to the congregation assembled on that day.